From the library: Actung Baby, An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, by Sara Zaske

From the library: Actung Baby, An American Mom on the German Art of Raising Self-Reliant Children, by Sara Zaske February 22, 2018

Turns out, the Germans are actually pretty dang similar to the Dutchies, as profiled in The Happiest Kids in the World.  Or maybe it’s just a reminder that it’s Americans, with our high-achievement-demanding, helicoptering ways, that are the aberration, at least relative to the West.  In any case, I read this book with an eye to how her experiences compared to my two years there as well as the above-mentioned profile of the Netherlands.

To begin with, this is the story of one family’s experiences, placed into the overall context with supplemental research and bibliography.  The author moved to Germany with her husband and toddler daughter at, so far as I can tell, roughly the same time as we did, give or take a couple years; the only reference to specific timing is that they originally planned to stay for three years, the duration of her scientist-husband’s post-doc employment contract, but ended up staying longer because, due to the financial crisis, there were no jobs to be had in the U.S.  Only after 6 1/2 years did her husband end up finding a job in the U.S. so that they returned home.  Given that we were in Germany from 2005 – 2007, that would suggest that she arrived maybe a little later, and returned back to the U.S., say, in 2012 or so.  In any event, they lived in Berlin, and she learned the ways of German childrearing as her daughter and then her son, born during their stay, experienced them.

To begin with, she reports that, contrary to stereotype, German childrearing and German kindergartens are all about enabling the child to explore and discover through play, rather than indoctrinating the child into obedience and orderliness.  It was news to me that this was a stereotype in the first place but she reports that, indeed, this was the intent of the traditional Prussian, then Nazi, approach, to create mindless automatons ready to serve the German state.

She also reports that all-day child care is perfectly normal in Germany — and this is where I struggled to do the math of exactly when she was in Germany; that is, whether her and my different experiences were due to differences between Berlin and Munich, or just the difference of passage of time.  When we were in Munich, places at the kindergarten, serving children ages 3 and up, were reasonably readily available, though with some issues around start date (you could only enter at one of several prescribed dates during the year), and most of the spaces were half-day or extended half-day, with full-day spaces generally reserved for two-working-parent families.  But spaces at the (state-subsidized) kinderkrippe were much harder to come by, and, in fact, the standard maternity leave is, or was, anyway, three full years — that is, one’s job is held for three years; maternity leave benefits ended sooner than that although, as we were leaving, they were in the process of implementing a longer-duration partial pay replacement.  Now, in the meantime, the government has made it a priority to build up the networks of gartens and krippen so that spaces are available to all, as a part of an overall push to move more stay-at-home mothers into the workforce to compensate for an overall aging workforce.

But mostly her experience seems to reflect the fact that, in the former East Berlin, nearly all mothers worked, simply because it was an expectation under the communist regime, for the dual purpose that one’s labor belonged to the State, after all, and that, the sooner one relinquished one’s child to State care, the sooner that child could be indoctrinated.

Anyway: she reports on a number of studies asserting that child care doesn’t harm children, which she says she wished she’d known when she was struggling to make life work as the mom of a young child in the U.S., feeling guilty about child care and trying to minimize the length of time her daughter spent in a daycare center.  And she considers “don’t feel guilty about leaving your kid in daycare” to be an important take-away.  But more relevant is that German kindergartens (or kitas, as they called them in Berlin, apparently, short for kindertagesstaette, or, literally, child day place) are vastly different than most American daycares or preschools.  The lead teachers have degrees, and not just as a credential to check off a box, but, at my sons’ kindergarten, they put on a fairly elaborate spring play, and they sang with the children, and one of the teachers played guitar, and the other accordion.  They spent a lot of time outside, in both Zaske’s and our own experience, and the outdoor play area was substantial, relative to the typical American daycare’s fairly meager playground equipment.  In our own experience, the kindergarten also had a separate basement room for sleeping, with actual (toddler-sized) beds, and there was a further open room called the “tobe-raum” or “running-around room” where the children went in bad weather to run around and burn off energy — though, to be fair, the daycare where my youngest son finished up his pre-school years, a nonprofit connected up with the local nursing home, interestingly, had a very nice facility.

But the key point is that they did not do any of the American preschool’s or kindergarten’s nonsense of imagining that they’re going to learn letters and numbers and, worse, sight words, but that this was all reserved for first grade.  Instead, the learning consisted of “projects” in which they explored topics to learn about the world, and they “learned” social skills by their day-to-day experiences of living.  In particular, since the groups were multi-age, the older children had the experience of being classroom leaders before moving on to first grade.  And the teachers didn’t intervene to “fix” squabbles between children but left it to them to work it themselves.  (Which, in our case, didn’t always work out, as my older son never figured out how to assert himself when the other boys told him he couldn’t go into the building corner.)

The second difference is that, as soon as can reasonably toddle off by themselves, they do so, at the local park, while the moms chat off at the benches, in comparison to the American practice where moms follow their small children around in the playground, talking to them, making sure they don’t fall, etc.  And at much earlier ages than in the U.S., those children are permitted to go to the park by themselves, or walk to school, or take public transportation somewhere.  (My husband took the commuter train to school starting in 5th grade.)  In part, the paranoia about Stranger Danger isn’t there, and more run-of-the-mill fears, like falls off a bike, are balanced out by a recognition that the child needs to be given independence.  Indeed, even as young as kindergarten, they have overnight trips away.

Another difference:  homework — Zaske reports that the assignments were much lighter, and were always done during her daughter’s time at the “hort” or afterschool daycare, which, again, she reports as the norm, where it was my understanding from our time there that there was a waiting list to get in (we ended up choosing the International School when my oldest hit first grade, so I didn’t really have a full understanding), though, again, in the town we lived in, the hort capacity has now increased substantially. And the traditional German school has a much shorter school day than in the U.S., say, from 8:00 – 1:00, which my husband had always explained as, “well, you don’t have all kinds of classtime to do your homework, and you’re expected to do it at home,” so I don’t know how representative her experience was.

Further difference:  attitudes to risk.  American playgrounds have gotten so safe as to be boring and to have, ironically, higher rates of injury because kids use the equipment in more dangerous ways than they’re supposed to — climbing on top of play structures, for instance.  Germans, on the other hand, offer kids “adventure playgrounds” such as this one in Munich, in which the kids use hammers and saws to build the structures themselves, without adults hovering over them.  Zeske also describes such activities at school as “match-striking lessons” meant to de-mystify fire so that the kids are less keen to play with matches in secret at home.  And they are much more willing to have preschool or early elementary school children be naked, say, at the pool or at the playground’s water play area.  (This is not what I remembered — rather, children of both sexes wore only bottoms around the pool, and changed in the open, or would strip to their underwear to play with water.)

And, finally, as in the Netherlands, she describes a matter-of-factness to teen sex, including parents perfectly comfortable with the idea of their teens’ boyfriends staying the night and joining them for breakfast the next morning.  (Not for me, thank you very much!)  She also lauds them for their willingness to discuss the Holocaust in contrast to our hesitancy to discuss slavery and other American misdeeds (is this really true?  I think this varies a lot by where you are).

I’d like to say that we, personally, implement German practices at our home, but we “cheat” a bit, since the park, the pool, and the kids’ school, are all close by, and there’s not even a busy street to cross to get to the local “downtown.”  I suppose the question I’ll be asking myself this summer will be whether I’ll let my son, now in 5th grade, cross the Busy Street (at a stoplight) to visit his new friend who lives relatively close if he can do so.  (It should be fine, right?)  But for many Americans, their suburban subdivisions make it impractical to push their children to greater independence on a day-to-day basis, because there simply aren’t places they can easily get to, even on their bikes.

So there you go.  I’ll conclude with my usual invitation:  readers, what do you think?  How much independence do you allow your children, at what ages?


Image:  By Raysonho @ Open Grid Scheduler / Grid Engine (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Browse Our Archives